The U.N. narcotics watchdog on Tuesday issued guidelines on how to crack down on Internet drug peddling at the request of governments struggling to contain growing abuse of prescription drugs.
A U.S. study last year found that only two of 365 so-called Internet pharmacies were legitimate -- selling internationally controlled substances only with the required prescription, International Narcotics Control Board chief Hamid Ghodse said.
In many countries, the abuse and trafficking of prescription drugs now equals or exceeds the use of outlawed heroin, cocaine and amphetamines, INCB officials said. And many Web-purveyed products are counterfeits that are potentially dangerous.
The global scope of the problem demanded better cooperation between governments to tackle it, Ghodse told U.N. member states during a two-week, U.N. anti-drug policy conference in Vienna.
Therefore the board decided to provide a framework for coordinated international action and cooperation, elaborating the most essential measures which need to be taken.
They recommend a wide range of measures, including regulatory and legislative action to shield citizens from distribution of controlled substances without prescription.
Hard-to-trace cyberspace pharmacies were everywhere, evading national controls to serve growing addiction to prescription drugs. But these products were also being bought by conventional drug traffickers and sold on the street, Ghodse said.
He said the ease with which adolescents and children could obtain pharmaceuticals, using the anonymity characteristic of the Internet, was a growing concern.
Last November, police in nine countries raided businesses suspected of supplying medicines illegally over the Internet in the first such global swoop coordinated by Interpol.
Products seized have included drugs claiming to treat diabetes, impotency, obesity, hair loss and male breast growth.
Properly regulated, Internet pharmacies offer a valuable service by increasing competition and access to treatments in underserved regions.
But the online world is also a Wild West of spam e-mails and elusive peddlers, according to healthcare regulators.
(Editing by Richard Balmforth)